I'm developing a story with the following basic plot:

  • At the start, my main character's motivating question is "Where is my brother?"
  • As the story progresses, other problems and motivations get in the way and slowly push aside the find-her-brother quest.
  • At the end, she finds the answer-- that he's been dead all along-- but by that time the question is almost an afterthought; not only is this answer something the reader probably already assumed, it hardly matters to my character either way anymore.

This question will not drive very many of her decisions, because other plot elements will get in the way and she herself will have a noticeable arc. And my hope is that watching her arc will be what makes the story interesting. But I worry that such a straightforward answer might leave readers disappointed, having expected some sort of narrative payoff.

The closest analogy I can think of is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with the reveal that Rey's parents are

nobody special, and sold her for drug money.

The movie has gotten many criticisms, and one of them is that this reveal felt unsatisfying. But by that point in the story, the idea of finding her parents didn't seem to be driving many of Rey's decisions anyway. (I mean I could be wrong here, and if I am then maybe it doesn't work as an analogy.)

I guess my underlying question is, can payoff-that-isn't actually work?

  • I was personally glad Rey's family situation was disappointing. (I'm also not sure we've heard the end of that history. Would be interesting, for example, if Obi Wan is her Grandfather.) But also consider the idea that the end of a story is a mirror reflection of the beginning--the same but completely opposite.
    – SFWriter
    Jun 21, 2019 at 23:05

3 Answers 3


You need to distinguish between payoff for the character and payoff for the reader. The character may or may not get the payoff she wants --your contract isn't with the characters, but with the readers, they are the ones you owe the payoff to. Throughout your story, and especially at the beginning, you as the writer are making a host of promises to the reader about what the story will give them. How well you meet those promises will determine how fulfilled the reader feels by the ending.

In the case of The Last Jedi, a key part of the contract is established at the very beginning. What seems like just a throwaway joke about Poe making a fool of the enemy commander is actually an important signal that this movie will explicitly reverse the tropes and cliches of earlier movies in the same series. That's the promise being made to the viewer --and it undercuts the promise being made to Rey's character, to the effect that she will find great significance in her unknown parentage.

In the case of your story, you can also make one promise to the character --she will find her brother --while simultaneously undercutting it for the reader. One part of this is foreshadowing the brother's death (there's a million ways to do this). More importantly, however, you'll need to make it clear to the reader (but not the character) that what she actually needs is something different than big brother (for example, maybe what she really needs is to learn to rely on herself). The way your story already ends will tell you all you need to know about what promises to make in the beginning.


I think the bigger problem with your story is that it sets the wrong reader expectations. Readers come into the story not having any idea what will be payed off, except maybe some hopes of what the story will be about based on your title, cover art, and synopsis.

They can only go off of what you give them. The things you put in the opening chapter, the things you spend time on. So when the character's motivating question is "Where's my brother," they understand her through the light of someone who is seeking. They have expectations based upon what you've given them.

If her journey then ends up being something else, why did you start there? Is it possible you started too early? Your opening chapters are essential to setting up a satisfying story. Don't waste them on a subplot.

Yes, your lack of payoff could work, but only if it's intentionally a message by itself. Perhaps make it part of the character's arc: she has decided she no longer cares. If she walked right up to the door of her long-awaited answer and then turned away without opening it, that would be payoff. Depending on how you contextualize it, she could be angry at him and decide she doesn't care what the hell happened, or she could realize that she doesn't need to know anymore and can still live a satisfied life. But notice that in either case, she has still changed as a result of her search. There's still payoff.

Mary Robinette Kowal stresses the idea of opening and closing promises in reverse order. If you start with the brother's disappearance (from an emotional standpoint), you should also end there. If putting it at the end is going to take away from the feeling you want to leave with the reader, then I suspect you've chosen the wrong opening and should work it in somewhere else.


I'd say, make sure her central dilemma is NOT exactly about where her brother is, but about what her brother does for her.

A good analogy would be Dorothy in the movie The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She seeks the Wizard, to get her home, and goes through all sorts of trials and meets her friends, but in the end the Wizard is a bust, a fraud. Not what they expected.

But then the Wizard shows all her friends that all along, they already had the character traits they thought they were missing. Then when Dorothy gets left behind by the Wizard, Glinda the Good Witch of the South shows Dorothy she also had what she wanted, all along -- The ability within herself to get home.

In your story, the brother is "The Wizard", your character seeks him because she thinks she needs him. But her personal growth in the journey proves she had all along what she thought only her brother could provide; she can be self-reliant. Her own hero. She doesn't need him after all. And though she may grieve his death, it won't be the disaster she originally thought it would be.

Dorothy sought the Wizard because she thought she needed him to continue her life at home in Kansas with the people she loved. But it was a false goal. Following the Yellow Brick Road was the journey it took to transform her from a child to a hero, to meet and ultimately risk her own life to save her friends, both from the Wicked Witch and from their own flaws. The fraudulent Wizard was her downfall, the moment when all seemed lost, but then she realizes she doesn't need the Wizard to save her, she can save herself.

It took Glinda to tell her that, but when your character discovers her brother is dead and believes all is lost, you can have some character tell her she already has everything she thought she needed from him; she has proven that on this journey. The climax of the story is not that everything worked out as she planned, but that she realizes her own full potential. She did not need her brother's protection after all. And she can grieve him because she loved him, not because she needed his services.

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